ON THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF “5150,” SINGER SAMMY HAGAR REFLECTS BACK ON HIS TIME IN VAN HALEN
Andy Greene of Rolling Stone spoke with singer Sammy Hagar. Highlights from the interview appear below.
RS: This week is the 30th anniversary of 5150. How do that feel?
SH: What a trip, man. Unbelievable. I just got out of bed, and what a thing to wake up to. I need some coffee for that one. Wow.
RS: Were you fan of Van Halen back in the 1970s?
SH: I gotta say that the first time I heard Eruption into You Really Got Me I thought it was badass. I was like, “Wow, who are these guys?” The thing that always impressed me about Van Halen is that they were like a pop band that was heavy. They had attitude and were reckless and everything that is cool for rock and roll, but they were really poppy. The music was very major chord-ish. Bands like Black Sabbath were minor, deep, dark. Van Halen wasn’t dark at all.
RS: What did you think of 1984?
SH: To me, it was all about the first and last albums [with David Lee Roth]. 1984 was fantastic. They really got the sound, pretty heavy. It was great.
RS: You had no trepidation about replacing a frontman that was so iconic?
SH: I was never a fan of Dave. He wasn’t the kind of artist I was looking at and going, “I want to be like that.” Never in a million years. My favorite artists were Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Peter Gabriel. I know it sounds crazy, but those kind of artists were who I looked up to and who I wanted to be like. After playing with those guys, I realized the band was really about the music, and all this showmanship and stuff was attractive, but once that flamboyant thing got your attention, your attention immediately went over to Eddie. You’d go, “That guy is really unique. That guy can play.”
RS: There was talk of it being called Van Hagar at one point, right?
SH: Yeah, that’s what Warner Bros. and Geffen wanted. I was on Geffen then and [David Geffen] was talking to Mo Ostin about how it could work. They start saying, “What if it don’t work?” I’m sure they tossed around the idea of calling it Van Hagar as an experiment just in case Van Halen got back together. We all said, “No.” It would have been interesting. Looking back now, it’s sort of a way to divide the two eras up. But we were so fearless when we realized what we could all do together.
Ed was freaking out when he heard me sing, Al and Michael Anthony too. They were going, “Holy s–t, this guy has rhythm in his voice, he has pitch and a range from hell.” I could pick up a guitar and say, “Hey Eddie, how about a groove like this?” and play some rhythm and he’d go, “Holy s–t, let me play organ.” We were all over the place. It was such an inspiration back and forth that it started elevating both of our musical abilities. Everyone around us got goosebumps. It was magical. That doesn’t happen every day…
RS: The first show was in Shreveport, Louisiana. How did you feel walking onstage that night?
SH: I was a f–king wreck. It was Valerie Bertinelli’s hometown. She had her whole family backstage and I didn’t even know those people. There were all these people around. When I would tour solo I was real private. These guys were back there getting drunk. I was a wreck. I was like, “What the f–k man? I hope this gonna work. Rehearsal is one thing, but the gig is another.” The record hadn’t come out yet since we were late getting the mixing and the packaging together, so the only thing out was Why Can’t This Be Love. And we were going out and playing all of the album.
They had just come off their biggest album. It was the only time I felt fear. I was like, “I hope they’re ready to hear all new s–.” But man, when we came out they tore down the f–king barricade down. It was that way for about nine years.
I didn’t see Van Halen on the 1984 tour, but I know they weren’t getting along or having fun. They were over-the-top drinking. People I know that saw that tour told me they did about eight songs. The show was one guy at a time coming out and doing a 20 minute solo and Roth doing his schtick. They really weren’t into it like we were. When I joined the band we wanted to play every song we knew. We’d start jamming Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll and Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love. We’d bust into Young Man’s Blues by the Who. We busted out Mississippi Queen one night. We were having so much fun and were so fearless and excited and in love with each other that it was really, really special.
That’s the sad part about it. I don’t know how that can change. I guess you fall in love with someone and wind up hating their guts.
RS Watching  hit Number One must have been really vindicating.
SH: Yeah, that was real validation. It was the first Number One record for all of us, and it stayed there for five weeks. The crazy thing is that it took three weeks to go to number one. It was a lot more difficult back then before Soundscan. Back then, it wasn’t all about sales and it kept building and building. I think we sold something like a million records in the first week, but they didn’t count it that way for the charts. It was some weird system.
It was a big deal for us all to have our first Number One record together. I remember us drinking champagne in Atlanta at the Ritz Carlton. Our manager told us the news and we popped a bottle at 2 in the afternoon, which wasn’t my style, and we probably had a pretty good show that night. I don’t remember that one.
RS: Do you look back at the first year together as your best times with the group?
SH: No. We continued to have good times. I got to tell you, they were all good times until the Balance record. That was the end of the good times. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was a good time. I was going through a divorce and it was a hard time personally, but on tour I might have had a better time than I’ve ever had in my life. I was becoming a free man, being the lead singer in one of the biggest bands in the world. There was nothing wrong with those times either.
Read more at Rolling Stone.